Pristine white beaches, turquoise Gulf waters, fabled eateries, and quirky shops make the Alabama Gulf Coast one of the hottest tourist destinations in the Southeast, but there is more to the area than sunning on the beach. It’s also home to some incredible wildlife and biodiversity.
When you make your plans to visit the Alabama Gulf Coast, make sure to take a break from the surf and sand to explore the region’s incredible flora and fauna.
1. Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge, Gulf Shores
Located 6 miles west of Gulf Shores on the Fort Morgan Peninsula, with Mobile Bay to the north and the Gulf of Mexico to the south, tucked away between beach houses and condos, there is an incredible refuge that is a must-see when you’re on the Gulf Coast: the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge.
The refuge encompasses more than 7,000 acres of maritime wetlands and forest. The name comes from the French for “safe harbor,” an appropriate name, since the refuge boasts 360 species of birds, rare and endangered reptiles like the American alligator and loggerhead sea turtle, one of the last remaining undisturbed coastal barrier habitats in the state, and an enchanting array of wildflowers in season.
The refuge has four trails that lead to these wonders. The first is the Jeff Friend Trail, a 1-mile easy walking (and ADA-accessible) loop along the banks of the beautiful Little Lagoon. The Centennial Trail is a 5-mile out-and-back trail over boardwalks and sandy paths through a gorgeous wetland that is lined with brilliant wildflowers and blooming lily pads in spring. The Gator Lake Trail is a 2-mile out-and-back hike through groves of scrub pine, deer moss, and wild rosemary over fine beach sand to the shimmering waters of its namesake lake.
And finally, there is the 4-mile Pine Beach Trail, the most popular hike in the refuge. It provides a look at the Gulf Coast’s transitional environment, heading from a maritime forest past the saltwater Little Lagoon and freshwater Gator Lake and across sand dunes to the most beautiful and secluded beach on the Alabama Gulf Coast. About halfway to the beach, there is a two-story birding platform, the perfect place to take a break and watch the birds and wildlife.
All of the trails are easy to walk, but the distance can be a challenge for those with mobility issues.
The refuge has three trailheads: The Jeff Friend Trailhead is 6 miles west of Gulf Shores on Alabama State Route 180. The Pine Beach Trailhead is only 3 miles west of the Jeff Friend Trailhead on the same highway, and the Gator Lake Trailhead is down a side road from the Pine Beach Trailhead. All trailheads are open from sunrise to sunset. Jeff Friend is gated and locked at sunset, so be sure to leave plenty of time to make the trip.
Keep in mind that dogs are not permitted in the refuge. There is also a kayak launch located at the Jeff Friend Trailhead where you can put-in and paddle through Little Lagoon.
You may encounter alligators along the trail. Keep a safe distance, and keep children close at hand. Walking on the sand dunes is prohibited. Stay on the designated trails.
2. Weeks Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, Fairhope
Established in 1986 by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Weeks Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve protects more than 9,000 acres of wetlands and marshes in one of the fastest-growing areas of the Southeast — Baldwin County, Alabama. The reserve protects the estuary where the freshwater from the Magnolia and Fish Rivers feeds Weeks Bay, which in turn feeds Mobile Bay. This interaction between freshwater and saltwater creates a brackish mix teeming with plant and animal life.
There are two trails at the main reserve. The first is an easy 1.7-mile out-and-back dirt path through a forested swamp to the banks of the saltwater and freshwater marsh. The second is a short ADA-accessible boardwalk that leads to the tidal flats, with spectacular views of the waving sea grasses and Weeks Bay.
While walking the trails, you may spot blue crabs, red-bellied turtles, and American alligators as well as some of the more than 350 species of birds that frequent the area. You might even catch a glimpse of a manatee.
The reserve also has a fascinating interpretive center where you will find displays describing the estuary and its plants and animals. At the back of the building, there is a miniature zoo your grandkids will love, with fish, blue crabs, and an alligator.
The trails are open from sunrise to sunset, and the interpretive center is open from Monday through Saturday and closed for state and federal holidays.
A quarter of a mile north of the interpretive center, the preserve has a nice ADA-accessible boardwalk that will lead you to a small pitcher plant bog.
The estuary is also a prime location for mosquitoes, so be sure to bring along the insect repellent during the spring and summer months.
3. Ruth McClellan Abronski Splinter Hill Bog Preserve, Bay Minette
The Ruth McClellan Abronski Splinter Hill Bog Preserve is described as one of the most visually stunning pitcher plant bogs in the world. In season, thousands upon thousands of the white-top carnivorous pitcher plants bloom for almost as far as the eye can see.
A pitcher plant is a long tubular plant with a flap on top. Inside the tube is a sweet nectar that attracts insects. The insects go in, but they never come out.
The preserve has a 3.1-mile out-and-back hike that is easy for people of all ages to walk. The old dirt road and occasional narrow dirt footpath take you through the pine forest across a couple of creeks, including the tannin-colored waters of Dyas Creek, passing brilliant wildflowers in season such as sundews, butterworts, milkwort, and orchids.
The main attraction, however, are those acres of pitcher plants that can be viewed only a half mile from the parking lot. The walk to the view is ADA accessible.
The best time to visit is when the pitcher plants bloom, generally from April through the end of June. The preserve is open from sunrise to sunset. And don’t forget your insect repellent.
4. Audubon Bird Sanctuary, Dauphin Island
Alabama’s barrier island, Dauphin Island, is known as “America’s Birdiest Town,” and for good reason. The island has been recognized by the National Audubon Society as one of the top four locations for bird-watching in the world. In fact, they call it a “globally important location for bird migration.”
It’s no wonder, then, that the island and the Audubon Society created the 137-acre Audubon Bird Sanctuary. In the sanctuary’s coastal forest of slash pines, scrub oaks, saw palmettos, wax myrtles, and Southern magnolias, you can spot more than 100 species of birds that either live on the island year round or migrate in every year.
The sanctuary has 3 miles of easy walking trails that loop around and interconnect, giving you a choice of routes. They lead through a magnificent maritime forest past a shimmering lake and a reptile-loaded swamp with an observation platform to a beautiful view of the Gulf of Mexico from the island’s dog-friendly beach.
The sanctuary is open from sunrise to sunset. While swimming is allowed on the beach, there are no lifeguards, so swim at your own risk and do not swim if there are red flags flying that indicate dangerous rip currents. Alligators may be present in the lake and swamp, so keep your distance and your grandchildren (and dogs) close at hand. Oh, and don’t forget bug spray in the summer.
A great place to get a quick bite to eat after your hike is Miguel’s Beach’n Baja, which serves up amazing Mexican and Southwestern food.
5. Mobile-Tensaw River Delta, Mobile
Known as America’s Amazon, the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta is the second-largest river delta in the country. Located just north of Mobile, the 48,000-acre delta has a myriad of dark and moody bayous and backwaters that vein through cypress and tupelo swamps and marshes that are lined with towering trees draped in Spanish moss. Visitors to the delta will have a true wilderness experience just outside of a major Southern city. Bald eagles, herons, and egrets soar above, looking for their next meal. You may spy a Florida black bear, and you most definitely will encounter American alligators lurking just beneath the water’s surface, peering at you or sunning themselves on a log.
There are two ways to experience this wilderness wonderland. The first is take one of the pontoon boat tours that are available and are suitable for visitors of all ages and abilities. These tours take a leisurely and safe float up the bayous and main channels, with expert guides pointing out the wildlife and describing the delta’s history. WildNative tours are available that leave from downtown Mobile or the Historic Blakeley State Park.
The other way is via kayak along the Bartram Canoe Trail, where miles and miles of marked waterways will get you up close and personal with the wildlife. Remember, though, that paddling the delta is not for the neophyte paddler. Even though the trail is marked, it is still easy to set off on a side channel and get lost. You need to have orienteering skills or travel with a guide.
If you’re feeling really adventurous, you could even try camping on the delta.
6. Graham Creek Nature Preserve, Foley
An amazing array of wildlife and native plants can be found along the trails at Graham Creek Nature Preserve, located only minutes north of Gulf Shores in the town of Foley. More than 10 miles of easy walking trails — including an ADA-accessible trail — lead hikers and bikers around the 484-acre preserve through swaying pine savannah grasses, flowering magnolias, and acres of beautiful white-top pitcher plants, where you may encounter bobcats, coyotes, gopher tortoises, and hundreds of migratory birds. Along the banks of the park’s namesake creek, you might just spot a manatee.
When you’re finished with your hike, take a break and learn more about the environment and wildlife at the preserve’s interpretive center. And visit their website to check out the schedule of guided tours and special events.